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Virgin Orbit targeting this summer for 1st-ever orbital launch from UK soil

Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with the LauncherOne rocket underwing for the company's "Tubular Bells: Part 1" mission on June 30, 2021.
Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with the LauncherOne rocket underwing for the company's "Tubular Bells: Part 1" mission on June 30, 2021. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

On the heels of a third straight successful launch from California earlier this year, Virgin Orbit plans to extend its liftoffs to the United Kingdom.

The company aims to launch for the first time this summer from Spaceport Cornwall, in the western United Kingdom, Virgin Orbit announced on Wednesday (March 9).

The mission will loft a satellite for Space Forge, an in-space manufacturing startup based in Wales. The coming flight will be the first orbital mission ever to launch from the UK and the first to carry a satellite developed in Wales, the companies said.

In photos: Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions

"We're thrilled to be making UK history with our first launch," Space Forge CEO Joshua Western said in Wednesday's statement. Space Forge wants to test a new mini-space manufacturing factory called ForgeStar, which (when operational) will seek to return to Earth products made in space.

"We will demonstrate the use of space for good through in-space manufacturing and reliable return, and it's brilliant that both Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall share our ambitions," Western said. "This is the start of a great collaboration, and we are so excited to see where it goes."

Virgin Orbit conducts its launches using a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft called Cosmic Girl, which totes a rocket called LauncherOne beneath its wing to deploy satellites in space.

Virgin Orbit says the 70-foot-long (21 meters) LauncherOne, which can launch up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) per mission, has an advantage over traditional vertically launched rockets, as air-launched missions are more responsive and flexible. 

Virgin Orbit is part of the same group as space tourism provider Virgin Galactic; both companies belong to billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit's debut orbital test launch in May 2020 failed after a fuel line in the rocket's first stage burst. The company recovered to post three straight successful launches in 2021 and 2022.

In January, Virgin Orbit said it plans to launch five more missions in 2022, including two from Spaceport Cornwall. The other three will lift off from Mojave Air and Space Port, the takeoff point of all Virgin Orbit missions to date.

"The Cornwall launches are targeted around the middle of the year — summertime," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said during a media call on Jan. 11.

"That's predicated on getting through the licensing process successfully and some of the logistics, but that is what we're driving for," he said. "And [the first Cornwall flight] will be the first launch ever from UK soil and the first [orbital] launch ever from the European area."

Virgin Orbit is also seeking other locations to launch from. Early possibilities could include Guam, Japan and Brazil, with more long-range opportunities potentially in play in Australia and "several European countries, as well as countries in other areas," Hart added.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.